The Doomed Marriage Between Mitt Romney and Congressional Republicans
Republicans in Congress belatedly closed ranks behind Mitt Romney this past week, with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell abandoning their neutrality in favor of the clear nominee. The goal is a happy political marriage until Election Day in November—and, ideally, beyond.
Arranged marriages of this sort—between presidential candidates and their parties’ members in Congress—are practically mandated by the election cycle. But historically, they’ve tended to produce shaky unions—and there’s good reason to believe the relationship between Romney and the Tea Party-driven congressional Republicans will be exceptional only in the severity of its uneasiness. This is not an example of passionate matrimony, but a mere wedding of convenience—and it’s safe to say the honeymoon won’t last long.
To be sure, there are always tensions between a presidential candidate and his congressional party. Their strategies are never in perfect alignment, because they need to reach different electorates. Presidential candidates focus on an electoral college map, which means emphasizing some states and ignoring others—the latter to the detriment of House and Senate candidates from those areas, who miss out on the money spent and raised by the top of the ticket, and the get-out-the-vote organization it sets up. For their part, all lawmakers share a paramount aim—assuring their own reelections, and keeping or winning a Congressional majority. If the presidential candidate can help, great. If not, as Newt Gingrich gleefully showed Bob Dole in 1996, they will readily throw the presidential candidate under the bus.
This often becomes apparent in the issues that compete for spotlight in an election year. Presidential candidates may focus on issues or send messages that congressional candidates would prefer to avoid—and congressional leaders may focus on issues that the presidential candidates want to shun. (Sometimes this is simply because the legislative timetable is out of sync with the presidential candidate’s needs.) So when Bill Clinton mentioned gun control and an assault weapons ban in 1992, it made Democrats in Congress from the South and Southwest cringe. When George W. Bush ran as a compassionate conservative in 2000, it drove uncompassionate right-wingers batty; when those Congressmen and Senators adopted a hard edge, he had to try to temper it.
But when it comes to Romney and his fellow Republicans in Washington, these inherent tensions are amplified considerably. At the center of the problem is the major gaffe of the campaign (gaffe in the Michael Kinsley sense: The utterance of an inconvenient truth): Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom’s admission that after securing the nomination, Romney would do a reset, shaking the Etch-A-Sketch to pivot from his hard-right positions toward the middle, where the crucial swing votes reside. Congressional Republicans have never had interest in facilitating such a pivot. Indeed, they are already taking steps to prevent it.
Start with the budget designed by Representative Paul Ryan, which House Republicans passed on a party line vote, and which Romney warmly endorsed. While that endorsement may have won Romney some credibility among conservatives, it also promises to tie his hands considerably if he wins the election. To take one example: The Ryan budget says that it will reduce all discretionary spending, domestic and defense, to 3.75 percent of GDP by 2050, less than half of what it is today; but Romney has also pledged to put an ironclad 4 percent of GDP floor under defense spending alone. Taken together, then, a Romney administration would be committed to abandoning the entirety of non-military government. No air traffic control, no Coast Guard, no transportation, energy program, NIH, CDC, Customs, FBI, NASA, and so on. None.